Episode 2 of Dancing Queens showed us the real drama of a ballroom competition, as students and their teachers put everything they have into their performances in hopes of being noticed by the judges, making the final and ultimately winning their event. It also provided some fantastic examples of the dynamics of the pro-am relationship and how they trigger tension and conflict.
A dance partnership is a unique relationship that can be difficult to understand from the outside. It is a professional relationship that requires mutual respect, but it also requires a deep level of trust that extends beyond what you would need in any other professional partnership. It is intimate and physical, but not in a sexual way (though depending on the dance style, your dancing may convey sexy or sensual emotions). A successful dance partnership requires clear expectations and honest, respectful communication. Both dancers need to have near equal dedication and commitment to the vision and goals of the partnership, as well as their own development.
The pro-am dance partnership throws a wild card into this delicate arrangement – an unequal power dynamic. One dancer is a professional. They have chosen dance as a career. In order to make a living, professional ballroom dancers teach dance to others. In ballroom dance, one professional dancer/teacher will end up with multiple partners – all of their students plus potentially a fellow pro dancer if they are competing at the professional level. On the other side, you have the amateur student dancer. They usually have one partner – their teacher. Student dancers vary in skill level, but they are always at a level less advanced than their pro partner. Some view it as just a hobby, i.e., something to do for fun, while others develop a very deep and very real passion for the art/sport.
The greater the passion and commitment that the student dancer feels for their dance journey and therefore their partnership with their teacher, the greater the risk of the unusual and unequal dynamics creating conflict and, lucky for Bravo and Dancing Queens, drama.
Episode 2 starts at the Tri-State Dancesport competition where Sabrina, Colette and Donie are competing. We are also introduced to a fifth “Dancing Queen” Gaëlle who dances with Nino Langella, a top of the world champion Latin dancer. They all make the Open Latin B final except for Colette, who is disappointed because she always made the final with her old pro partner. Sabrina ends up placing 2nd in the event, Gaëlle is 3rd, and Donie lands in 6th place (she’s also disappointed).
The views of pro-am competitions vary greatly. Some see competitions as fun excuses to get dressed up in rhinestones on a Thursday morning and perform for their friends or family, an extension of their hobby. Others take the events more seriously, as milestones or markers of their progress as serious dancers, even if they are the “am” in the pro-am partnership. I was one of the latter, taking competitions seriously, partly because they were way too expensive to be categorized in my budget as “just for fun.” I also was one of those fully passionate and committed students who found herself in ballroom dance and came alive on the dance floor. How could I take something that had such a profound effect on my life lightly?
To be clear, serious and fun are not mutually exclusive. I had a ton of fun as a competitive ballroom dancer! But my feelings about dance went deeper. Dance was far more than just “fun.”
I think that’s where people who see ballroom dance as just a fun diversion have trouble understanding why someone would get so upset about a competition result or anxious about a performance. What’s the big deal? Dance is supposed to be fun! Of course, it’s fun. And for those who feel like their soul comes alive on the dance floor, dance is also blissful, inspiring, terrifying and fulfilling. The experience of dance, positive or negative, is felt on a deeper level. So even though we know going into a competition that judging dance can be very subjective and our worth as a dancer is not tied to our results, it still hurts when we place lower than we hoped or expected. And since that hurt is felt on a deeper level, our reactions may be bigger and include tears.
Aside from reactions to the competition results, there was a bit more of what I’ll call “manufactured” drama on this past week’s episode. From what we were shown on the episode and the previews of upcoming scenes, it looks like Sabrina has been cast as the villain of the show. Remember that Dancing Queens is a reality show, not a documentary, and the editors of the show have crafted a story for our entertainment, not for our education. Every good story has a villain. That is not what caught my attention on the show though.
I gave up Passover. He should give up Mexico.Sabrina
After returning home from the competition, there is a scene where Sabrina tells her family about her next planned competition. The catch? It’s occurring during Passover, an important Jewish holiday and especially meaningful for her husband. Could she have chosen a different event that did not occur during a religious holiday? Yes, of course, but for our purposes here, that is not the point.
The point comes in a subsequent scene when she is at the studio for a lesson with her teacher Stas. She has brought some balloons and cupcakes to surprise him because it is his birthday. A very common thing for ballroom students to do for their teachers. I would bring my teacher homemade scones. Then Stas drops a bomb – his family surprised him with a trip to Mexico for his birthday and he is leaving the next day and will be gone for a week.
Sabrina gets upset that they’re going to miss a week of practice together, and the reason comes back to the uneven dynamics of the pro-am partnership. From Sabrina’s perspective, she is making a great sacrifice by committing to compete at an event that occurs during Passover. In a way, she is demonstrating how dedicated she is to her and her dance partner’s journey. She is putting the dance first over everything else. Then her partner tells her he is leaving for a week to go on vacation. He is choosing to spend time with his family and enjoy this wonderful trip that they surprised him with. He is probably looking forward to the break after working so hard with his student for the last competition and the chance to rest and refresh before the next event. Nothing wrong with that, right?
Nothing wrong with that at all except for the student who made dance their No. 1 priority, it feels like a slap in the face because it feels like their partner is not as committed as they are to the partnership. I think anyone would feel the same if they were working really hard on a joint project and then find out that the other person wasn’t putting in the same effort (#1 reason why I hated group projects in school).
I’m sure you have all sorts of opinions and judgments about the situation and whether or not Sabrina’s reaction was justified. It’s not like Stas was actually shirking his responsibility to the partnership. I don’t necessarily agree with her reaction, but I understand where it’s coming from. Going back to the joint project scenario, how would you feel if you rearranged your whole schedule to make sure you would be available to work on the project and then your partner tells you they’re going to be out of town for that time? Regardless, it’s again not the point. The point is pro-am partnerships can get messy and complicated because of the unequal nature and our perceptions of that imbalance.
I was just a job, but he was my partner.Colette
We learn more about Colette’s former pro partner in Episode 2. He “broke up” with her in favor of another student, and she’s still getting over it. Her tearful statement to a friend sums up the pro-am relationship perfectly: “I was just a job, but he was my partner.”
When you train with a ballroom dance teacher via private lessons, their attention is 100% on you for the extent of the lesson. You do not have to share them with anyone during your time. So it starts to feel like the two of you are truly dance partners, as you learn choreography together and work toward the same dance goals.
Then your lesson ends, and the teacher starts working 1-on-1 with another student and the attention shifts to being on that student 100% and those two work closely toward a different set of dance goals.
The perception of even a single day is vastly different for pro-am dance partners. For a student, they enter the studio and are greeted by their teacher. They may chit chat a little bit about the student’s day and then get to work. They dance together, review choreography or maybe work on a specific technique. Perhaps they do rounds to prepare for an upcoming competition. The student leaves the studio and returns to the rest of their life.
For a teacher, they spend the whole day greeting their various students. They focus on providing quality service to each client that has booked a lesson, whether it’s their first or their 100th. They play coach, therapist and confidante to those clients who need an ear to listen or a shoulder to cry on. They also take opportunities to offer new or additional services to each client, so their business stays viable and successful.
For those student dancers who feel dance at a soul level, it’s easy to forget that their pro partner is dancing with them primarily because they are being paid to dance with them. Not completely forget, obviously, because you’re constantly writing checks for more lessons, coachings and/or competition fees. But the money exchange can be pushed to the background and just be a reality both partners deal with, as opposed to being the main reason that the partnership exists.
Not to say that the teacher is not also passionate about dance! But dance is also a business for them. Part of maintaining and growing that business is keeping clients happy and helping them feel successful as dancers. Ballroom teachers absolutely love sharing in their students’ successes and hate to see them disappointed. But pride or care for a student is not the same as dedication to a dance partner.
Successfully navigating the pro-am relationship as a student comes down to maintaining reasonable expectations. You are a client first. You are paying to be trained in ballroom dance in your chosen style(s) and if you choose to compete, you are paying for a professional dance partner to perform with you. That’s it! You are not paying for friendship or some kind of surrogate significant other.
Edit: After reading the published post, Colette offered this additional thought which I thought was so important! She gave me permission to add it here:
We are also paying for trust – trust that the time, money and effort we spend won’t be cast away without notice or proper discussion. This trust falls within reasonable business ethics and is separate from any bond that may or may not form.Colette
We are human though and are wired to bond with others, most often those we spend a lot of time with and/or have physical contact with. Touch alone has been proven to have significant positive effects on our mental and physical wellbeing. It is one reason why ballroom dance and partner dancing in general is so beneficial for people. It also means that ballroom students, especially those who take their dance journeys more seriously, will form a stronger attachment to their pro partners than in a normal strictly business partnership. Of course, teachers get attached to their students as well!
The pro-am partnership is a beautiful thing when the teacher and student respect each other and each other’s boundaries. I remain so grateful to my ballroom teacher for helping me grow as a dancer and a person. With his support, I gained self-confidence and found joy in owning who I was. I wouldn’t have had the courage to move across the country without my ballroom experiences and find the contentment I have now.
Before I wrap up, please don’t confuse attachment with lust or love. While plenty of romantic partnerships have formed out of dance partnerships, the vast majority of pro-am partnerships remain appropriately platonic. Just because a student cries or gets upset over a teacher does not mean something kinky was going on.
I hope I’ve provided some insight into the complicated relationship that is pro-am ballroom. I have an idea for the next topic, but we’ll see what Episode 3 brings us. And if there’s anything you want to know more about as far as the world of pro-am ballroom goes, let me know in the comments!
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2 thoughts on “Dancing Queens Episode 2 – Let’s Talk Pro-Am Relationships”
I am also a competitive ballroom amateur dancer. I agree with your comments except that Collette’s teacher was very disrespectful when he chose to drop her via a text message. It was a difficult decision but he owed her respect to end their partnership in person and give them a chance to part on better terms. It possibly could have helped her move on more quickly and positively.
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I agree! Ending any relationship over text is just lame. 😝